This lightweight is heavily into Sumo
At 5-foot-3 and 135 pounds, Michael Greenberg was the lightest sumo competitor at the 14th annual U.S. Sumo Open on Sept. 20 — by a lot. But according to the young Jew from Long Beach, his svelte frame is one of his biggest assets.
“I think a lot of people are going to underestimate me,” he told the Jewish Journal prior to the competition at the Walter Pyramid, a 6,000-seat venue at CSU Long Beach (CSULB).
When the announcer called out the names of the other men’s lightweight participants at the international sumo competition — one of the largest ones outside of Japan, featuring more than 100 matches — one by one, they climbed onto a platform. When Greenberg’s turn came, he threw his fists into the air with a victorious Rocky-like gesture, eliciting a thunderous cheer from the crowd.
Not only was Greenberg the lightest competitor at the Sumo Open, but he was the shortest and the only Jewish participant. So how did a smallish, 21-year-old student from Southern California end up in the sumo ring?
“My family’s used to me doing stupid things,” he said, laughing.
With a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, Greenberg is working toward a teaching credential in social science at CSULB, where he is an active member in the school’s wrestling and jiu-jitsu clubs. In August, the director of the U.S. Sumo Open, Andrew Freund, organized a sumo demonstration for the athletic department at CSULB — then got retired sumo superstar Yama to teach the introductory class.
“He’s a giant,” marveled Greenberg. “I’ve never seen anyone as big as Yama.”
Tipping the scales at about 600 pounds, Yama is the heaviest Japanese sumo wrestler ever. The 6-foot-4 behemoth instructed the class on basic sumo techniques, and for most of the students — including Greenberg —
attending the tutorial was their formal induction into the sumo world.
After watching the sumo demonstration on Aug. 21, Freund invited the athletes to compete in the Open a month later. Out of 15 attendees, four men stepped forward and said they were up to the challenge; one of them was Greenberg.
“They were gung-ho,” Freund said.
Still, it was clear early on that Greenberg and the others would need to adapt to the new sport — starting with the attire.
“So they have these things called a mawashi,” Greenberg explained. “It’s this big canvas — I don’t want to call it a diaper, but it’s a big canvas diaper — that [sumo wrestlers] put on.”
In wrestling, he’s used to skin-tight spandex attire, but the mawashi is a whole different thing.
“When you first put it on, it’s tight and a little cumbersome,” Greenberg said, “but you get used to it pretty quickly.”
The novice sumo wrestler competed in the lightweight division. Even then, Greenberg was smaller than every other competitor.
“It’s a real David and Goliath underdog story!” Freund said.
Despite popular misconceptions, the competitors who do well typically have “very low body fat percentage, and they’re very muscular, quick and dexterous,” Freund said. He speaks from personal experience, as the reigning U.S. Sumo national champion in the lightweight division, weighing in at 150 pounds.
“Guys who are natural athletes can pick up the fundamentals — the rudimentary sumo — very quickly, and that was the case with the wrestling club,” he said.
But to expand beyond their initial promise, Freund said they need more intensive practices. At the end of the day, Greenberg didn’t win any of his matches, but it’s obvious that he’s got chutzpah.
Freund searched for his words and said: “I think that’s the spirit of sumo.”
The Universal Sports Network will broadcast an edited version of the event on Oct. 14.